Toodyay, in the West Australian Wheatbelt and 85km north-east of Perth, was founded as Newcastle by European settlers with its name later changed and pronounced Too-dyay, as it is to this day, with the plum further into the mouth the higher one’s imagined social standing.
However, to the Ballardong Nyungar, in whose ancestral land it sits, it is Tudjii (u as in book, ii as in feet), sometimes written Duidgee. And not only to the Nyungar. Relatives of my parents’ generation who farmed at Moora also called it Tudjii, with a local rhyme to back them up:
Tudjii was Tudjii, when Northam was a pup; And Tudjii will be Tudjii, when Northam’s buggered up.
For me Dunalley will always evoke fond memories. It’s one of those rare places, which, like the Buccaneer Archipelago of my childhood, are forever changeless, magically fixed in time and space. There are people like that, too; those dear departed ones still vivid and warm in recollection. My old knockabout mates Bob Pomeroy and Julio, lovers, parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts – and Bill Dunbabbin.
Bill Dunbabbin is to me a large part of what makes Dunalley such a special place in my soul. In him are the sea and the wind and the enduring rocks of his beloved island; the great gums and the peaty rivers; the wave-battered cliffs and the quiet reaches of the sea-hammered West. But Bill was also a paradox: a quiet man who loved a yarn and a lively discussion as much as he enjoyed sitting in silent company, feeling the breeze off the bay and savouring the aroma that make coastal settlements what they are the world over: that sea whiff with its hints of far-off lands and adventures in great and noble causes.
He also liked a good read, especially from books about the lives and achievements of the great explorer–adventurers. We had a bit of a book club going there for a while, Bill and I, borrowing from each other’s collections. In Pat’s cheerful kitchen overlooking the bay and fuelled by her delicious home cooking, we exchanged views on authors and their subjects. Flinders (who Bill, in common with many seafaring folk, rated as probably the greatest navigator of them all), Baudin, D’Entrecasteaux, and Cook were discussed and dissected, along with accounts of great journeys by land and sea and tales of shipwrecks and wonders the world over.
In my past dealings with a national magazine, I was often in contact with modern-day adventurers and their achievements – mountaineers, kayakers, travellers in exotic overlands – and I respect their steadfast resolve to achieve what they do, but for all their wonderful feats, the fact remains that, when all is said and done, they are the modern-day equivalents of the “gentleman adventurers” of Victorian and Edwardian times.
Pat and Bill – like so many of their time – were adventurers in the course of earning a living and their time at Port Davey is almost the stuff of legend. Their generation drew strength from this rugged old land of ours and went quietly about their business, enduring much as they did so. They were the overlanders; the fishermen under sail; the soldiers, sailors and airmen, the Waafs and Waves and Wrans of great and terrible conflicts and the endurers of harsh economic times. And in them our Colonial past wasn’t history – it was in the conversations and recollections of their parents and grandparents. Let the politicians rant about flags and patriotism; I’ll stick to my Bill and Pat Dunbabbins.
If by chance you should ever be in Port Davey, that legendary haven of Tasmanian seafolk and, I suspect, Australia’s equivalent of Fiddler’s Green, rest soft a while. Let the moist morning air wash over you and open your soul to the voice of the water. There’s a good chance you’ll hear a soft, strong greeting: “Good morning, Captain.” Be not alarmed but instead be happy in the knowledge that Bill Dunbabbin has come home.Rest in peace, Bill, and condolences to dear Pat and family.
Afterthought – Where are the monuments?
Even though just a nipper as nations go, Australia has a proud maritime heritage. This is the only continent first populated by sea, and before the first European skippers sighted our coasts, with sometimes disastrous consequences, the Macassa Men traded with the northern Aboriginals for the right to dive for bêche-de-mer, or sea-cucumber. This link was once very strong. When I was a youngster, we knew this once-valuable commodity by its Malay name, trepang.
Ships and the seafarers that crew them have carried Australia’s economic lifeblood since the days of European settlement, while the RAN and its predecessors have always played a vital role in our defence. Our seaborne navigators and scientists add daily to our knowledge of the world and our fishing fleet, though a fraction of its former size, is still an important contributor to our economy.
A Tasmanian friend from another generation, the late Billy Dunbabbin, and I once discussed whether or not there should be a statue of Matthew Flinders, the greatest navigator of them all, in every coastal town, and if Flinders, then why not D’Entrecasteaux?
Billy himself was the stuff of legend – a former fisherman who with his wife Pat had for a time lived aboard their boat in Port Davey. On still, misty mornings I sometimes hear Bill’s low greeting: “Mornin’ captain. A soft day.” When the wind roars across the hilltops, I can visualise the whitecaps in Norfolk Bay and hear him opine that “It’d blow the milk outa y’ tea.”
So where then are the monuments and memorials? Who has heard of Harry Robertson, whose days with the Antarctic whaling fleets gave rise to a treasury of songs? When tourists take a Murray River cruise do they hear the songs and tales of the Mud Pirates?
Who collects the lore of the fishermen? Like the tale of the notoriously stingy crayboat skipper whose deckhand brother was lost overboard. Days later he radioed the police with the news he’d found the body. When told to bring it in he replied: “Can’t. I dropped him back in.”
When a horrified constable asked why, he replied: “’E was on good ground. I got 35 crays orf ’uv ’im.”
Since the 1970s, airconditioning in cars, homes and the buildings in which we shop and work has meant we’re exposed to the elements for just minutes at a time on most days. For many, the weather is a TV weatherperson’s breathless description of a mini-tornado in Oodnagalarbie East or hail-damaged flowerbeds in Pavlova Circle.
We watch as HOSE FROZEN of Angora Heights (formerly Billygoat Hill) demands the authorities do something about his garden tap, rendered inoperative by the lowest temperature in 80 years, and ends his complaint with a derisive remark about global warming. But those same TV “personalities” and their melodramatic presentations have probably made city dwellers more aware of the weather than at any time in the past 40 years – even if that mini-tornado was in fact a willy-willy lifting skirts and raising dust in the supermarket carpark.
To the fishermen, farmers and others who depend on it for their livelihood, the weather is a living thing. It’s seen in the 10-metre rogue wave looming over your boat in the vastness of the Southern Ocean, or in the searing wind that rattles the stalks of a failing crop; and in the staggering, rheumy eyed, dust-stained ewes, weakened by a year or more of drought. To these enduring folk, the weather means poor or plenty, a smaller overdraft or another season of make-do.
The weather can also be a life-changing experience – like the Tasmanian thunderstorm that struck me almost dumb, and nearly made me get religion. It was the mid-60s and there were six of us crammed with our instruments and the Speech Therapist from Sassafras into a tiny Standard, on our way to play a gig in the north of the island.
The little car struggled up St Peter’s Pass into the maw of a fierce thunderstorm and as we reached the summit I stuck my head out of a window , yelling: “Send ’er down Hughie, you old bastard!” Whack! Lightning struck a road sign just ahead of us, setting its post afire and briefly cutting our motor. There wasn’t a word said for an hour, and from that day I’ve never again yelled at Hughie during a thunderstorm
This was written more than twenty years ago now. The memories are still bright.
My old mate Bob Pomeroy has left us. My mad old mate from the reckless knockabout days, my grand old mate with his winning knockabout ways… I got the news last night cobber, and I suppose I’d been expecting it, but that hasn’t made it any easier.
We saw a lot together you and I. From one end of our beloved Australia to the other, and over the length and breadth of New Zealand we knocked about in those wild and wandering days, working at all sorts of jobs and all sorts of lurks as we travelled: tin-mine pump guards on Tassie’s sodden west coast; sideshow spruikers in Hobart and Adelaide; freezing-works labourers and wharfie “seagulls” in Kiwiland, you and I did it mate, hard and soft.
We put up in and put up with single-men’s camps of all sorts and shared flats and boarding-houses of all descriptions and some better left undescribed. We’ve been overnight guests of the English Queen in the days when being three sheets to the wind and full of the joys of living could get you lumbered in some of our less-understanding communities.
We earned big money in some places, sometimes, and bugger-all at others; shout for the bar one week and roll up our cigarette butts the next. We blued with each other and blued our cheques together. We laughed in defiance at an establishment that spurned us because they couldn’t understand us, and we wept together at the sheer beauty of being alive in this sometimes sad old world. We were mates in the sense described so well by Henry Lawson.
And always there was the music. We supported ourselves by singing in pubs and clubs from Zeehan to Invercargill, Auckland to Adelaide. For miners and ministers, crims and coppers, bag-swingers and socialites we sang Old Shep and The Spaniard who Blighted my Life, Love is Pleasin’ and The Wild Colonial Boy and everything in between, and never missed a beat or a beer in the doing of it.
Some of our escapades together have achieved legendary status Bob old cobber, and they seem to have grown a bit in the retelling, but who are we to gainsay that, we of a generation and background which idolises Ned Kelly, that other defiant Native Son from good though dirt-poor Celtic stock?
Do you remind the time we found the old 1000-gallon tank lying in the bush between the mine and Stan Roy’s Renison Hotel? Remember how we decided to see if we could still walk inside it the way we we did as kids and how it got away from us on the last slope? How it crashed through the jerry-built fibro wall of the back “lounge” and came to rest against a table? And do you recall the aplomb with which you stepped from the tank, raised a hand in the air and said “Two middies thanks Stan”?
Remember saying to the angry young constable in Adelaide – the one I’d abused and in whose general direction I’d swung a vague, somewhat worse for the booze hand because of the way he was treating some old meths drinker: “You can’t lumber him, he’s me best bloody mate!” Do you remember the Top Pub at Zeehan and Daniel and Roy and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Kerosene Jack and the Wallaby Twins and Nipponhausenberg and Strahan?
And what about the time you made the sign from a bedsheet pilfered from the single-men’s quarters in Zeehan. “Honest John’s Used Trains” it read. We hung it from the Cyclone fence surrounding the steam loco display at that mineral museum and, dressed in our best clothes supplemented with borrowed vests and ties, waited for the daily coachload of tourists to arrive. Do you remember the freezing purgatory that was the mine pump house on a winter’s night? The skin-lifting, gritty blast of compressed air on the face as we fought to clear the blockage in a leaky, rusted-out vanning table feed-pipe?
Oh they were the days mate. The days when yarns were born and legends made. The beer tasted better, the sun was warmer, the winters wetter and the work easier, even though the bosses were bastards one and all. The lovers and the loved, the laughter and the tears. I’m glad to have shared those times, the fat and the lean. And the music mate, always the music.
I’m crying as I write this Bob. I know you’d prefer I didn’t, but you’re a mate and mates understand. They mightn’t agree, but they don’t criticise. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left old china, so I can’t say when I’ll see you again, but we were never in a hurry to get anywhere. I know he’ll come for me in his own good time, that old ratbag of an ex council-ganger with the scythe. And fair’s fair I suppose, we gave life a bloody good shake, so we have to give the other a whirl too. I’ll see you straight after he’s been, old mate. Your hair’ll be flaming red again, and our beards’ll have no grey again, and we’ll rant and we’ll roar like we did again.
He’s half-hinched your body mate, but he can’t take the memories. See you later, cobber.
What’s that? Of course I’ll bring me bloody guitar!
We now know that birds, and bird song, originated in that part of Gondwana that is now Australia, which is why this continent and its neighbours are so richly endowed with species – the pigeon and parrot tribes, for example, reached their greatest diversity in this region.
I have admired birds ever since I can remember; the first – and only – request I ever made of Father Christmas was for a galah. All my life I have watched them, kept them, talked to them and marvelled at their diversity, their beauty and their intelligence. And during this, the time of endless burning, I weep for them.
Because I weep for them today, I want to remember the joy they have given me over the years, so I will share a magic interlude nearly forty years ago. It happened in and around a tamarisk tree growing outside a pickers’ hut on a dried-grape block in Coomealla district, New South Wales, near the town of Dareton and not far from where the Murray River is joined by the now imperilled Darling, and featured a tribe of Apostle birds (Struthidea cinerea) and a not-very-bright Collared sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus).
Meet the Apostle bird, so named because a popular, though unfounded, belief has it that it is always found in groups of twelve. It is also known as lousy jack, happy jack, grey jumper, and CWA bird, this last a somewhat derogatory reference to its habit of constantly chattering, putting the less charitable in mind of a Country Women’s Association meeting. It is a mud-nest builder and, like so many of Australia’s birds, raises the young communally, a dominant pair breeding and the rest of the tribe helping to feed the offspring – a very useful strategy in Australia’s erratic climate. They are also solicitous of each other. Feeding a group of youngsters in my backyard one day – their babysitter was perched on the clothesline – I noticed that if the smallest of the brood flapped its wings, its larger siblings would immediately offer food.
They are, like most birds, very intelligent. They also have a sense of humour.
On that day at Coomealla, my then partner/fellow picker and I were sitting on the rickety bench outside the hut, when a tribe of Apostle birds came swaggering up to fossick under the Atholl pine, as tamarisks are called in those parts. They knew us well, so we were pretty much ignored apart from the occasional derogatory remark when a fierce stare failed to produce a handout.
They’d not long been there when a Collared sparrowhawk flew on to the scene, immediately diving into the thick cover of the tamarisk’s higher branches. Rather than flee, a likely fatal manoeuvre, the tribe went into what can only be described as a war dance. Spreading their wings above their backs, they stamped their feet, fluttered and bowed, and raised a cacophony of squawks, causing the sparrowhawk to shift uncomfortably on its perch and peer intently at the dancers as if to see which of this seemingly demented tribe posed the greatest threat.
While its gaze was fixed on the centre of the rowdy mob, the bird closest to the tree quietly slipped around to the other side of the trunk and slowly began to climb towards the hawk’s perch. The closer it got, the more frantic became the dancing. Reaching the enemy’s branch, the Apostle bird seemed to shrink, as a cat does when it goes into the final phase of a stalk. Creeping along till it couldn’t have been more than fifteen centimetres from the target, the Struthidean hero, shrieking like an enraged panther, leaped into the air and with wings flapping and feet forward hit the hawk fair in the back.
The result was dramatic. The hawk literally fell from the branch and for a second we thought it would hit the ground, but at the last minute it spread its wings and fled. Wings beating like the clappers and flying almost at ground level, it disappeared among the rows of sultanas.
And the Apsotle birds? When the warrior returned to the bosom of the family, they began a corroboree of celebration. They bobbed and bowed, flapped and flirted, exchange gentle pecks and, I swear, they laughed. Long and raucously, they laughed. There’s no other word for the noise they were making.
Hubble bubble, toil and trouble,
Turmoil in the Canberra bubble;
Angus Taylor, an MP,
Of note in Government Ministry,
Had pulled another little rort,
It seemed (at last) he had been caught.
But no, his tubby little frame,
Ablaze with Pentecostal flame,
The PM stood in Parliament,
His anger on the House to vent;
“This persecution has to stop,
“I’ve phoned my mate, New South’s top cop.
“And young Mick told me it’s a joke,
“That Angus is a bonzer bloke.
“And so, you Opposition jerks,
“Who claim he’s pulled a dozen perks,
“Ease up on Angus, that good man,
“Who likes his finger in the jam.”
How grand it is for us to be, Living in democracy; Where our national leader bold, Has put our Parliament on hold; And Coppers in another State, Decide a Federal pollie’s fate.
The rise of the racist right and the behaviour of some of our keepers of law and order as witnessed in television footage from Sydney and Melbourne leads me to wonder into what abyss my beloved country is sliding. What is perhaps worse, is the encouragement this regression to a dark past is receiving from many of our elected representatives. The aggression towards two Afghani womenrecently displayed by two Sydney policemen bought my first real introduction to racism flooding back.
I was eight years old that morning in mid-1949 when
Mum, Kerry, 4, Dan, 2, and I boarded the regular MacRobertson Miller* flight
from Perth’s Guildford Aerodrome to Derby via just about everywhere on the way.
Under normal circumstances it would have taken a full day; back then, flights
going north carried newspapers, mail and some supplies, not only to the then
very small towns on the route, but also to some of the remote stations. But as
things turned out the flight was to be anything but normal and I would again
find myself wondering just what made some adults tick.
Just boarding the Douglas DC-3† was an adventure in itself. We’d been booked to fly to Derby a couple of weeks before, but Mum had come down with something and we had to cancel. Just as well, that plane had crashed just after take-off, killing everyone on board. Kerry and Dan were too young to be aware of it, and though I’d read of the tragedy in the West Australian, mortality wasn’t yet on my radar. It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate what my poor mother – edgy at the best of times – must have gone through during that trip and the one after.
I have no clear recollection of how many were
on board the flight, though I do remember there was a crew of three: two pilots
and a “hostess”, as female flight attendants were known in those less
enlightened days. All but one of our fellow passengers are a fuzzy memory, but
I can see the exception as clearly as if it were yesterday. An archetypal Pom
dressed in Bombay Bloomers (long, baggy shorts all same British Raj), a white
shirt and tie and, horror of horrors, long socks and sandals, all topped off by
a large straw hat. He completed the stereotype by loudly proclaiming in a BBC
accent that he was “travelling to Darby”, something he continued to do until we
parted ways, no matter how often he was told: “It’s Derby, mate.”
Along with the human cabin cargo, much of the centre aisle was taken up by lengths of building lumber and a few rolls of chook wire through which the flight attendant had to navigate, and part of the space between the front seats and the cockpit held newspapers and other odds and ends. The wire featured in later events.
We must have made a stop at Carnarvon, but it doesn’t register in my memory, overshadowed perhaps by the events surrounding the next one, which has never faded, the colours, the sounds, sight and scenery remaining as vivid as ever they were. The plane circled over the claypan serving as a landing strip on a station‡ inland from Exmouth Gulf – Madman’s Corner as it was once known – and came in to land. The DC-3 slowed very quickly and then stopped almost dead as the wheels began to sink into the mud beneath the claypan’s harder surface. The pilot killed the engines, we all disembarked and it was obvious that the flight wouldn’t be resuming any time soon, the wheels were already half submerged. It was already hot and the passengers stood in the shade of a wing as the pilots assessed our predicament and the Pom loudly complained about everything to anyone who would listen.
One of the pilots quietly told Mum that they’d
got Port Hedland on the radio and the airline would be sending a small, lighter
aircraft to pick our family up. It’d take a few hours, he said, but she
wouldn’t have to worry about feeding us and we’d be sleeping in a bed that
We hadn’t been on the ground all that long, when the station boss, The Missus, a taut, wiry woman in moleskins and a checked shirt, and two Aboriginal stockmen approached on horseback, one of them leading a packhorse. It had obviously been a struggle to reach the plane; the horses were coated in mud up to their bellies and their riders’ trousers were caked with the stuff. I learned later that the Missus told us there’d been a big storm through a couple of days before and the homestead radio had been knocked out, making it impossible to contact the airline and cancel the scheduled stop.
The Aboriginal men, directed by the Missus, began digging the wheels out, and after an hour or so we all retreated to a safe distance while the pilot attempted to get the plane to move forward, engines roaring.
This was great stuff as far as I was concerned. Mud flying everywhere, the occasional not-so-indiscreet curse and the stockmen fighting to restrain the very worried horses, but the plane remained well and truly stuck.
By now things were getting a bit tense. It was
getting very hot, Kerry and Dan were intermittently crying and needing drinks
or food, and a couple of the passengers, the Pom included, were getting more
than a little aggressive with their questions and seemed to be looking for
someone to blame for our predicament. As for the stockmen, they were doing what
Aboriginals always do when there’s white-fellers’ business going on; sitting
quietly in the shade of the aircraft’s nose while the pilots discussed the next
The lumber and rolls of wire netting were dragged from the plane, and the stockmen dug a long, broad, upward sloping trench from the wheels out past the nose and laid the netting and lumber on its floor. Again, we all stepped well back, the pilot again climbed into the cockpit, the engines roared and the aircraft began to crawl forward. It managed a few metres until the wheels hit another soft patch and sank again, taking the netting and lumber with them. That was it. The pilots decided that enough was enough; everyone was exhausted and they may have been worried that any further attempts might damage the aircraft. It was now late afternoon and stinking hot. The passengers and crew gathered in the shade of a wing with the Missus while the stockmen, coated in mud from head to foot and no doubt absolutely spent, squatted in the shade of the nose.
The hostess announced that she’d go into the plane’s galley to organise sandwiches and drinks for everyone and Mum went with her to lend a hand. They handed them around on trays to the passengers and then the hostess, in hindsight probably a young, city girl, went to take a tray to the stockmen. Well! That. Was. It. The boss woman stood in front of her, grabbed the tray from her hands and – I can still hear every word – spat: “Don’t you dare try to feed those boys! They can wait ’til they get back to the blacks’ camp.”
Mum wouldn’t have been much older than the hostess, she’d had us all young, but she waded in. “You lousy so-and-so! Give me that tray. I’m not going to take them over to those poor MEN now,” she hissed, “because I know they’ll be too embarrassed to eat them. But don’t you come anywhere near me or the kids while we’re still here.” And she ushered us closer to the plane. The thoroughly embarrassed flight attendant had burst into tears.
“Why was she like that Mum?” I asked later. But deep down I knew. Grampa George had once warned me against judging people by their skin colour and I had heard the taunts aimed at some of my relatives. When I was much older I understood why Mum would offer a cuppa and sandwiches to the Clothes Prop Man, though as a youngster I thought it was just friendliness.
Later that day, an Avro-Anson arrived to take Mum and us kids on to Port Hedland where we’d spend the night before taking a plane to Derby then the boat trip on Yampi Lass IIto Cockatoo Island, the place that shaped my life for both better and worse. But that’s another story.
* MacRobertson Miller Aviation was once a household name in Western Australia, as was MacRobertson’s chocolate, made at a factory founded by one of the partners in the airline, MacPherson Robertson. The airline’s logo was in the same florid script as that used for the chocolate.
† The Douglas DC-3 was a popular aircraft that
featured prominently in early commercial air travel. Its military equivalent
was the almost ubiquitous Dakota, known to the ground troops in the WWII
Pacific campaigns as the “Biscuit Bomber”. They flew countless missions
parachuting supplies to allied troops in Papua and other South Pacific islands.
‡ I haven’t mentioned the name of the station for two main reasons. First, though I’m pretty sure my memory is accurate on that score, I would need to be absolutely sure. Second, and this is tied to the first reason, I would hate anyone still living to recognise a loved relative in my description of the station Missus. And remember, they were greatly different times. Having said that, with our country under a conservative government led by a fundamentalist Christian, some of the worst aspects of that era seem to be creeping back again.
Almost from the day I first met him, when he returned from his nearly five years in the army during WWII, my relationship with Dad was a troubled one. As far back as I can remember, only once did we have a moment of togetherness, so rare that it’s still clear in my mind. But though there may be no excuses for his attitude to his family, there were reasons, and as I came to appreciate them my attitude softened.
Young enough to be almost of another generation, my youngest brother, who along with my littlest sister missed the tempestuous earlier days of our family life, helped me forgive him and find some measure of peace in that part of me that always craved parental affection. Rest easy, Norm. You were loved by a lot of people and I learned to love you before you died. I’m glad I didn’t become you but I recognised enough of you in me early enough in life to escape.
I’ve told you a bit about Cockatoo Island and I’ve also mentioned Alf Brown, the Torres Strait man from Thursday Island and now you’ve heard a bit about my Dad. All these figure in what I’m about to tell you today, along with another protagonist – a female barramundi almost as big as I was – who didn’t want to be in this story at all but who provided source material for a valuable lesson that, when later in life I came to understand it, shaped my relationships with all children and helped my youngest son become the wonderful person that he is.
Cockatoo Island had very little permanent fresh water and to fill the big storage tanks up on the hill, supplies were brought by barge from Silver Gull Creek. This water barge was towed by Yampi Lass II and what with the speed of the tow, the giant tides – nearly 40 feet – and the time needed to pump the water, it involved a two-day trip about once every few weeks or thereabouts, depending on the season.
So, this one time I’m talking about, I’d had a pretty full-on blue with the Old Man and things in the house were pretty much on the toe. I’d stayed away overnight, in the little patch of sandy hillocks by the lagoon, and of course on an island that size there was no hiding the fact that things were a bit crook in the Povah household.
Two-Ton Tony, a mate of Dad’s and the man who gave me his first edition copy of Tarzan Of The Apes to read, suggested that if I wanted to go over to Silver Gull on the boat, he’d fix it up with Norm and Tas, the skipper and a good mate of both men. No sooner said than done. All set. I could go over on my Pat and not, as was usual, as part of a picnic excursion. You beaut!
Silver Gull was a magical spot, its mouth hidden among the mangroves, crocodiles making its banks exciting and its tide-torn, muddy little estuary promising the attention of voracious sharks and giant stingrays to anyone foolish enough to swim there. I suspected, too, that it’d probably be a good spot to hook a barramundi to cook up for tucker so I dipped into my bag.
The Boys who lived in Steinbeck’s flop-house had learned the same lesson as I had: anyone who went abroad in the land without salt and pepper and – along the West Australian coast at least – fishing gear was a dead-set mug. No-one ever went anywhere without Wax Vesta matches and a line. The lines were of green linen cord about as thick as number 12 fencing wire and wrapped around a flat piece of wood, the hooks and sinkers of a size to match. You needed weight to hold the line in the tidal rip and anything that wouldn’t bite on a big hook was bait – with the exception of garfish, long Tom and yellowtail.
In the absence of live bait we used whatever was handy, especially anything light-colored: tinned cheese (bait was about all it was good for), peanuts with the red skin rubbed off, white rag dipped in anything oily, a piece cut from a powdered-milk tin and twisted to turn in the current; you could catch fish by just thinking about it back then.
Back to my story. I’d just thrown the line in when Alf came up to me. “Sorry to tell yer this son,” he said dolefully, “knowing all yer worry about ’ome an’ all. But you won’t ketch nothin’ ’ere. Water’s all wrong.”
Scowling at the spot where my line met the water, I ignored him as best I could; adults, even Alf, weren’t in my good books just then. He’d hardly left my side when – bang! –a big barra hit the hook and, feeling the resistance; hurled herself out of the water. I let out a yell and wrapped a bit of line around a deck stanchion – I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang on just with my hands. Nobody came near me while I struggled with her, and I pulled and belayed, pulled and belayed, hoping like hell that something bigger wouldn’t take a lump out of her till she was tired enough to land.
When at last she was on deck, I stood looking at the brilliant silver body with that mixture of triumph and guilt that to this day still plagues me when I catch a fish. Alf’s shadow crossed us both. “Strike a light, boy,” he said. “My people, we’re saltwater people y’know; we’re big canoe people and we bin fishin’ for t’ousands of years in Hustralia and we’d never b’lieve to ketch a fish ’ere. No fear we wouldn’t.”
I forgot that it was one of my brown heroes who’d told me that barramundi bite best where saltwater met fresh, and I forgot that Alf came from an island on the other side of the country – and I forgot about my row with Dad. I also remembered I was actually worth something as a human being.
A big saltie croc cruised alongside the Lass, glowering at me for the loss of a free meal, but I ignored the old bugger. I could once again handle anything life threw at me.*
*This last paragraph may or may not be true, though there’s every chance that it could be. But the rest of the story is.
An opportunity not to be missed, as the real-estate agents say. A mate had offered Bev and me, free, seven cast-for-age ewes. We had no sheep on the place that we rented in return for a bit of work, and Bev reckoned that even old canner mutton would be a welcome break from the underground variety, so we jumped at the chance. But had we known what turning those sheep into Irish stew was to involve, we would have stuck with the bunnies.
We were in town on our fortnightly shopping trip the day the ewes arrived. Bill, the generous mate, had driven past us on the way home. He waved, but didn’t stop for a yarn; the reason for this breach of country etiquette becoming apparent when we arrived at the house. Pinned to the back door was a cryptic note: ‘Ewes in yards,’ it read. ‘I think they might be footrot carriers. Better kill before the autumn break.’ There’s always a catch somewhere.
We had checked the old yards some days before and in our opinion they were almost good enough to hold anything short of a Kimberley bullock – but we’d not reckoned on the athletic prowess of sheep from Stony Creek. Footrot may have condemned them, but age had wearied them not a jot. On sighting us, those ewes went through the rails with a speed that would have won them the Upotipotpon Cup.
Six disappeared into the stand of black mallee growing on the hill, while number seven, displaying a fine streak of ovine perversity, cantered through the boundary fence and crossed the road. Without breaking stride she ducked under the sign advertising the neighbours’ footrot-free Border Leicester stud and crashed through the fence surrounding their bull paddock. I received only a mild shock as I clambered through in pursuit and, making a mental note to tell the neighbours that their electric fence needed checking, I set off after the ewe.
Now Walter was, under normal circumstances, a placid bull, the epitome of the Angus temperament, but the sight of a wild-eyed and desperate lunatic in pursuit of an equally wild-eyed sheep must have temporarily unhinged him. Around the paddock we raced; Walter in the lead, the sheep close behind, and me struggling in the rear. A sharp, jinking turn and the order of procession became me, Walter, and then the sheep. By sheer good luck I brought that ewe to ground before she joined the stud flock. Hauling her through the fence to where Bev waited with the wheelbarrow, I noted that the energiser was supplying full power to that section of the fence. One down, six to go.
Those six will long live in my memory as the wariest sheep it has ever been my misfortune to meet. The merest hint of a squeak from a door hinge; the slightest slither of a well-oiled rifle bolt, was enough to send them bolting into the mallee, where they would instantly dematerialise.
One died. A combination of old age and over-excitement I thought, but Bev was of the opinion that too much time spent in standing cockatoo had not allowed it time to eat. Five remaining. The anticipated meals of mutton had faded into the limbo of broken dreams. Those ewes had become a threat to our sanity; an affront to our dignity. The neighbours’ dog was no use. After seeing the sheep dematerialise for the tenth time, she was reduced to whimpering and hiding in wombat holes whenever she heard me call her name. At last, in desperation, we told the now contrite Bill, the bloke who’d visited the curse upon us and was fast losing his right to be called “mate”, to ask our mutual friend Sam to bring Black George to yard the sheep for us.
Black George was a legend in the district; his ferocity a household word. His sire and dam had been honest workers both; his grandparents were dogs of great wisdom and dignity, but somewhere, somehow, something had gone wrong. Throughout the district, it was darkly hinted at that Black George was a changeling, the spawn perhaps of some spectral thylacine. While yarding chooks and ducks he was the model of good manners; goannas and guinea-pigs were treated with the velvet paw; but show him even a photograph of a sheep and he became a ravening lunatic.
Those ewes recognised the enemy immediately. On sighting Black George, they headed for the mallee, the dog slavering and howling in pursuit. The Black George theory of working sheep had it that they must first be reduced to a catatonic state, and once this was accomplished he would stand over them drooling, tail thrashing in delight. Black George’s response to his owner’s hoarse yells was to attempt to run the sheep the twelve miles to Stony Creek, pioneering a new route as he went.
Exasperated, Sam collared Black George as he flashed past for the umpteenth time. Tucking the dog under one brawny arm, he headed off after the sheep himself, treating us to a practical demonstration of the wisdom inherent in the old adage, ‘It’s no use keeping a dog and barking yourself’. Sam did the running, Black George the barking – a fine example of cooperation between a man and his dog.
This novel approach to shepherding proved too much for the sheep. Totally demoralised, they launched themselves into the big dam, and seizing the opportunity to cool off, we plunged in after them. Black George did his best to help; using the nearest back as a springboard he lunged, snapping and snarling at the swimming ewes. Fortunately for us, the sheep were now totally confused and Bev and I hauled them one by one to dry land, Sam assisting by holding George under water where his snarls and yowls of rage raised a fountain of bubbles, no doubt sending yabbies and eels racing for cover.
Those ewes escaped us in the end, proving too tough even for the sausage machine. The neighbours’ dog was the sole beneficiary – to compensate her for the indignity she suffered we gave the mutton to her owners as dog tucker.
A friend visited that district recently and called into the pub, where he’d been told the story of the “Great Upotipotpon Muster”. It hadn’t grown much in the telling, he said. Why should it? Truth is indeed much stranger than fiction and a good yarn needs no embellishment.
• • • • •
For those unfamiliar with Australian dialect – and sadly this now includes a growing number of Australians raised on a cultural diet of US TV – I’ve added this bit of a glossary. Underground mutton: wild rabbit; Mallee: small, multi-trunked eucalypts of several species, some a major source of eucalyptus oil; Chook: a domestic hen, chicken; Standing cockatoo: when flocks of cockatoos are feeding on the ground, some remain perched on vantage points to sound the alarm when danger approaches; Thylacine: the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger, a dog-like carnivorous marsupial; Yabbie: one of several names for a medium-to-large, freshwater crayfish.